Saint Nicholas Day
An Herbal Celebration in the True Spirit of Christmas
by Nancy Desmond Armitage
Planning for the Christmas holidays may be far from your mind, but there’s an age-old Dutch and German tradition called Saint Nicholas Day that can get your holiday spirits in high gear and help you rekindle the true meaning of Christmas. Saint Nicholas Day, which falls during Advent on December 6, celebrates Saint Nicholas’ love of people, (especially children) and his great generosity.
Saint Nicholas was a priest who became a bishop. Soon after his ordination, his parents, who had great wealth and high social position, died, leaving Bishop Nicholas their fortune. He used that money for charity, giving freely to people in need without thinking about receiving anything in return. In fact, he always gave his gifts anonymously.
The fun begins at our house on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, December 5. On this night, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning, we make a special cookie dough called “Speculaas,” which produces a gingerbread-like cookie. The older children are privileged to join in with the baking. They are reminded that they are Saint Nicholas’ little elves or angels to help carry on this wonderful tradition for the family.
Little bags are made up for all the good children, for they are the only ones who receive treats from Saint Nicholas, The bad little children receive a piece of coal, garlic or a lemon from Saint Nicholas’ companion, Black Peter. Each bag is filled with one of the special speculaas cookies baked in the shape of Saint Nicholas. The bag also contains a Saint Nicholas Blessing and the recipe for speculaas cookies, and is tied up with a big red ribbon and a sprig of rosemary.
On the morning of Saint Nicholas Day, our sleepy-eyed children walk into the dining room, which has been magically transformed for the Saint Nicholas Day celebration. Saint Nicholas leaves us a beautiful trinket wreath hanging from our chandelier, reminding us of all his miracles and legends. The table is laid out with a lace tablecloth, green and red plaid placemats and napkins. The plates are decorated with a speculaas cookie and a special Saint Nicholas blessing on top. He has set out our best crystal, (plastic wine glasses for the children), and filled each one with Martinelli’s sparkling cider and a sprig of spearmint. Each glass bears a little red ribbon with a sprig of rosemary around the stem.
In the middle of the table in a place of honor are statues of Saint Nicholas himself and his companion, Black Peter. (These are Byers Christmas caroler statues.) Surrounding them is a herbal wreath of rosemary and thyme sprinkled with “gold” chocolate coins. Little presents, gold coins, cookies, and candies adorn each person’s place. A special book about Saint Nicholas, for the family to read, is tied up in a big red bow.
After a delicious breakfast we all head to the living room to see what Saint Nicholas has left in our Christmas stockings. Oh, the fun we have opening presents we receive, each of which hints at our good and bad traits or talents. The sleepyhead receives a bed, the great tennis player receives a tennis racket, and so on, each made with the speculaas cookie dough.
Last year, my five-year-old son Taylor had been a little naughty prior to Saint Nicholas day. Accordingly, Black Peter left a garlic and a lemon in his Christmas stocking, along with his gifts from Saint Nicholas. True optimist that he is, Taylor came running into the kitchen to tell me how excited he was to get a lemon—now we could make lemonade!
What is so wonderful about this day, is that you can celebrate it with both young and old alike. You can make your festivities as simple or elaborate as you want. Recapturing the true spirit of Bishop Saint Nicholas is the important thing. You don’t even have to make the speculaas cookies, because you can buy them at Dutch, German, or Indonesian specialty stores. Saint Nicholas Day is a truly fun day that shows your family and friends how much you appreciate them.
From The Herb Quarterly, Fall Issue 1990, by Nancy Desmond Armitage, copyright © 1990. Permission pending.